Monday, January 14, 2008

Major blow to army in South

Major blow to army in South

After a short period of what is now proving to be a deceptive lull in the ongoing unrest in the South, violence has flared up again and the heavy toll on the Thai authority's side is worrying. Separatist rebels killed eight Thai soldiers and wounded others after ambushing a military convoy escorting teachers to school in Chanae district of Narathiwat yesterday. The latest incident is one of the single deadliest, not only in terms of the heavy casualties on the part of the army but also the atrocious manner of the attack. After overturning the military humvee with a bomb and shooting those trying to escape, the militants tried to decapitate all the eight soldiers killed.

They succeeded in cutting off the head of one of the dead soldiers. Prime Minister Surayud Chulanont understandably tried to play down the latest incident, saying it did not signify a serious escalation of the conflict. Instead, the ambush should be seen as a usual strike _ the militants getting lucky in their murderous attempts _ which resulted in an unusually high number of casualties.

The PM may be correct in pointing out that attacks on army and government personnel in the restive South have become a routine horror, but his hopeful analysis that there is no serious escalation of violence is way off the mark.

It may be true that the frequency of these acts of violence has declined since August last year, almost down by half to around 20 incidents during Sept to Nov, according to the Deep South Watch centre at Pattani's Prince of Songkhla University. However, the number of people killed or injured has actually increased steadily every year, from about 1,400 in 2004 to almost 2,300 last year. The numbers speak for themselves. The conflict might be continuing at the same level _ stabilising in its being unresolved _ but we are suffering a heavier loss. As the insurgency enters its fifth consecutive year of constant battle, without any signs of abating, there is a real risk to the public perception of the government's, and the army's, ability to control the situation.

The events of the past week have not been encouraging. Starting off with the revelation from the army that it might have moles supplying secret information to the militants, it turns out that seven police officers serving in the deep South are also under suspicion of having spied for the militants. The suspects have denied the charges and are being held for questioning. The Fourth Army Region in charge of peace and order in the deep South is revamping its intelligence gathering and access system. The disclosure is shocking. The situation in the South is a dire one and under the circumstances, intelligence is key. For the army to show weakness in such a crucial spot in its operations is a cause for extreme concern.

The next bad news was the escape of six suspected militants from Tanyong police station in Muang district of Narathiwat. The fugitives were reportedly led by Nasree Muelee, suspected leader of a special attack unit of the Barisan Revolusi Nasional (BRN). The six men had been in custody for several days while awaiting trial related to more than 10 cases of violence.

A manhunt with more than 300 policemen has been deployed, while the Narathiwat police bureau has clarified that the fugitives did not break out from ''prison'' as reported. They had, in fact, been detained in what was ''a make-shift facility in the compound'' of the police station. The bureau's description definitely raises some serious questions as to whether the police there were too complacent in their ability to watch over and control the suspects, whether they have problems with their prison space, or whether some of them played a part in the escape. Otherwise, why were suspected insurgents wanted in connection with more than 10 security-related charges not detained in jail cells?

Security-related officials in the restive South have the public's utmost sympathy for the huge challenges facing them. But they must get their act together before the situation slips further out of hand.

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